Code Geass

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Because of its incredibly long and daunting history, it can be really hard to know what mecha shows to watch. On this column, we have already covered an Evangelion-like mecha show, a throwback to Saturday morning cartoons, and the best introduction to the massive Gundam franchise. This week, let’s do something a bit different and explore an anime that’s like one giant political chess game and also a fun teenage drama show. It’s time to declare war on Britannia and join Zero in Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion.

In an alternate version of our world, the French Revolution spread across Europe, and all European nobles fled to the American colonies (which never gained independence) and founded the Holy Britannian Empire. The Empire controls most of the entire world since it invaded Japan, now known as Area 11, and rules with the highly xenophobic, racist ideology of “all men are not created equal” that puts the strongest at the top and everyone else is treated like crap. No matter how many rebellions begin, they’re brutally smashed by the Empire.

That is, until we meet Lelouch Lamperouge, secretly the 11th prince of the Britannian Empire who was exiled by the Emperor to live in Japan with his sister, who is now obsessed with getting revenge and discovering who murdered his mother. The show evolves into a combination of the mecha and war themes of Gundam, the psychological and moral games of Death Note, and all the teenage drama of a CW show. And it begins the moment Lelouch gains literal superpower, a “Geass” that allows him to mind control anyone and give them one command they can’t refuse. 

What Makes It Great

One of the best things about watching a show by Studio Sunrise — the granddaddy of real robot anime and the studio behind Gundam — is that they make a lot of fully original anime. Code Geass definitely has hints of other shows, particularly Death Note and Gundam 00, but its world and its character arcs feel uniquely original. The main crux of the story is Lelouch’s journey to try and to topple the monarchy and destroy Britannia with the help of a ragtag group of rebels, and the best part about Code Geass is seeing Lelouch play a game of chess with a massive Empire with infinite resources. Each episode sees him try to come up with new schemes and plans to advance just a little bit, while his opponents become more and more intelligent and powerful. 

Like the best of anime, it knows how to take advantage of its serialized format to end most episodes on painfully exciting cliffhangers that compel you to keep watching (the re-watch for the purpose of this article took place over just two days). If you like the sort of psychological mind games of Death Note, you’ll find something to like in this show, which takes a very believable (if not fully realistic) approach to portray how one could take down a totalitarian regime. 

A big element that makes Code Geass stand out among other mecha anime is its character designs. The all-female Japanese manga artist group CLAMP worked on the early designs of the show and you can really feel their influence throughout. CLAMP’s art style is all about beauty, and exaggerating beauty in bodies with stereotypically feminine features. The characters in the show all are elongated and have angular features, and they look as if they come from a magical anime show rather than a gritty war story. This perfectly fits the changing tone of the show, which is really split into three distinct stories — the war story of Lelouch’s rebellion, the high school drama about our protagonist’s normal school life, and the third, which clashes the previous two and is about Lelouch trying to hide his identity while his personal and secret lives collide. Code Geass is basically a CW superhero show in many ways, and it’s great. Some may be put off by the high school hi-jinx, but give it time because it’ll grow on you.

Code Geass is also notorious for its ending, which is generally agreed upon to be one of the best endings in anime, managing to tie up (most) loose ends and providing a cathartic, surprising, exhilarating conclusion. 

What It Adds to the Conversation

Though the initial draw to Code Geass is seeing a story about rebels overthrowing an empire, the crux of the story is the duality between its two protagonists: Lelouch and Suzaku. Lelouch is a Britannian prince in exile leading a group of Japanese people, while Suzaku is the son of the last Japanese Prime Minister who is now siding with the colonizers. It’s a bit of a cliché, but they really are two sides of the same coin, and Code Geass excels at subverting the hero’s journey through these characters.

In the beginning, it’s easier to consider one to be the hero and the other a traitor, but the show makes you at least connect to the characters’ emotional reasoning for doing what they do. Even if you don’t agree with them, you respect them. Lelouch may start out as a typical hero, but he’s not above using and discarding everyone to further his personal goal — turning his arc into more of a redemption story than the rise of a hero — while Suzaku starts out with the same intentions as Lelouch, only at a different starting point. 

Make no mistake, this show has plenty of issues: things that make no sense, plot armor stronger than Beskar steel, and characters making the stupidest of mistakes. What redeems the show is the way those mistakes are given a lot of gravitas. Most of Lelouch’s defeats in battle come as a result of him messing up because he’s still a teenage boy. An off-handed comment boasting about his new abilities becomes a turning point for him and the world of the show, and what may look like a tiny personal flaw or personality quirk carries huge consequences down the line.  

It’d be easy to compare this show to Legend of the Galactic Heroes (a show you should definitely watch) based on its politics and focus on a group of rebels fighting against a huge empire. But what really differentiates the two is that Code Geass at no point finds any sympathy for the Empire. Sure, there are sympathetic characters from that side, but the show is unapologetically political, specifically anti-imperialistic, anti-colonialistic, and opposed to institutions that allow for racism and xenophobia. That informs every character on the show. Here is where the high school stuff becomes hugely important. For the most part, we spend our time with either common Japanese fighters from the guerilla, or the high command of Britannia’s nobility, but the high school setting serves to show how privilege and entitlement entrench people, and whether they can be changed when confronted with their mistakes. Lelouch and Suzaku may come from similar backgrounds, but the way each of them experiences privilege and prejudice informs every action they take.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

At a base level, Code Geass can pair up nicely with Gurren Lagann, which is another story about taking down imperialist systems. What makes this show stand out, however, is its political and moral chess games, and the way its protagonist changes with each action he takes. This show has a bit of Death Note‘s mind games, the soul of The Count of Monte Cristo and its thirst for vengeance, and all the juicy antics of a high school drama combined into a single show about fighting against colonization and institutions of prejudice and bigotry — and what better way to cap off 2020 than that?

Watch This If You Like: Death Note, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Gundam, Any CW show

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Code Geass is streaming on Netflix and Hulu. 

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